#RPGaDay2021 Day 15 - "Supplement"
Supplements are the backbone of the RPG industry. They not only offer more opportunities to build out a game system, but provide incremental revenue sources for the publisher and/or secondary creators. Today, I'm going to be talking about what I look for (or don't) in supplements.
For purposes of this, I'm going to assume that there is a core book (or two core books) for the game. D&D has the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide as separate core books. Numenera split their one core book into Discovery and Destiny. Dungeon Crawl Classics has one book with everything.
The Critical Few
After I've read a new game's core book, the first supplement I reach for is its "Monster Manual" equivalent. After 40 years of gaming, I can bring up all the fantasy creatures I want for a game, but if the game is Cthulhu horror, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Cyberpunk or surreal, I really want a book where somebody who knows and runs that system has written down the creatures that make sense in that environment. Even if a game is only 1/3 about combat, that book is a must-have to me.
Except for D&D, which I run with exclusively homebrew material, the next thing I reach for is a good starting adventure. This needs to be approachable, low level and a great introduction to the game, its mechanics and open the minds of players and GM to the potential of the game, and make them want to play more. One of the things that games have been good about from the beginning is having good starting adventures. (And to be honest, good starting adventures are what cause me to buy most of the new games I pick up at GenCon.)
I have to give credit to the companies who create Starter kits, which provide good quickstart rules, pregen characters and an adventure to send them on. These kits tend to be less expensive than the core book, and a great way to see if a game works for your group.
I consider the "Critical Few" supplements to be must buy, possibly at the same time I get a new game or edition.
Detailed Genre Books for Generic Systems
There are some great generic systems out there. I'm a big fan of Cypher, but GURPS is certainly the granddad of such systems. And I've heard great things about Hero, Cortex Prime, Genesys, and Basic Roleplaying just to name a few. If you want to create a space robot farmers game, these games exist to help you create that vision.
There are two problems with these games: First, it puts all the legwork on you as a gamemaster to create your generic game. Second, some games or settings really require non-generic mechanics to work.
Enter the setting supplements. GURPS is not popular because it's inherently a good system. It's popular because if there's something you want to play, they've probably written a supplement about it. These books include pre-built concepts, new things you can spend points on for the setting, and setting details that let you get up and running much faster, and have it feel distinctly different than generic GURPS.
Monte Cook Games has really nailed this with the Cypher System, but in a different way. They don't have generic "Magical Setting" books. Rather, they have books for extremely specific settings that build out everything you need for that game, as a supplement to the Cypher Core Rulebook. My favorite is Shanna Germain's Predation, which a setting of "people with futuristic technology take a time portal back to dinosaur times and get stuck" (Short version: Dinosaurs with Lasers!) The supplement lays out how to work with dinosaur companions (a new thing), an in-depth setting guide, how you level your character AND your dinosaur. And provide enough material to run multiple campaigns with different themes in that world. And they have a half-dozen other settings that are equally unique, interesting and fleshed out.
I consider these must-buy books, but the nice part of both of these approaches is that while you can collect everything you actually only need to buy one book to really give your generic game some specific oomph.
Extend the Important Bits
Core books often tease concepts, or they provide basic implementations that cry out for additional content. You can certainly run with what's in the core book, but especially for established systems, you start looking for the books that make it better.
The first of these is books that extend the characters. D&D always has it's three basic fighting classes: the Fighter, Paladin and Ranger. One of the first things that Wizards of the Coast does after launching a new edition is introduce new primary classes, new fantasy races, or new ways to make existing entities interesting to run a second time. As time goes on, they mix and match, create more specialized examples and extend the options for the classes and fantasy races that exist.
Most games have some sort of toys: magical items, spy gadgets, high-tech artifacts, etc. Another fast-follow supplement that often comes out is new spells, new magical items, new equipment. Things that let the most generic characters grow their "loot" in new and interesting ways.
Some games have a new focus or mechanic that makes it interesting and different. The core book usually spends a lot of time on this focus, but it's always a good source of fast-follow material. The best example of this, to me, is in MCG's The Strange. The concept of that game is that you can hop between realities. The corebook does a great job of handling this and I could run forever on just what's there. However, there are two exceptional supplement books that extend the game's potential: Worlds Numberless and Strange (to give you more realities to hop to) and Encyclopedia of Impossible Things (which provides what you might find in other worlds.)
I don't consider any of these to be must-own, but as I play in a system, they are the next books I'd reach for after the core and critical add-ons.
There are actually two types of setting books. One is an entire world ready to plop characters down and have them start adventuring. Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Eberron, Ptolus and Glorantha are just a few. Some settings are so popular that they end up with supplements to their core setting book.
The other setting book drills down for people who are interested in one specific area of the world (a large city in an established setting), a specific population in the world, factions within the world, and so on.
I have to give a special callout to 7th Sea, which as far as I can tell is a super-solid core book, and about a thousand setting expansion books. If you want to know about a specific problem area for the East India Trading Company and how adventures can be run in that space, this is the game for you.
I don't usually pick these up, because I personally homebrew for my big campaigns, and I tend to use whatever the core book provides or the setting provided in one-off modules for other games.
I have a special category here, mostly driven by WOTC's OGL. 3rd edition D&D brought about the Open Gaming License, which in turn spawned many supplemental books.
Some of it was truly exceptional, and I treasure those books today. Sword and Sorcery's Scarred Lands books were exceptional. Innovative and useful outside of their very dark setting. Green Rohin produced a number of great book including additional Players and GM guides, which brought in new mechanics and options for play.
Some books were untested or really didn't have the quality one would have hoped.
And some books overlapped content with other independent books, or were simply lost in the avalanche of self-published books which were created when the OGL was announced. Books that developed specific monster cultures, specific skills like herbalism, smithing and so on were on every shelf at GenCon and it was easy to overlook the gems.
These were books that I picked up if I wanted the material and they had decent reviews.